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Kenyan farmers battle drought with growing appetite for baby corn

By Kagondu Njagi

NGOLIBA, Kenya, March 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It
hasn't rained on John Mwema's farm in over a month. But on his
one-acre piece of land stand thousands of green maize plants.

"I grow baby corn," said Mwema, bending to examine a bunch
of tiny corn cobs. "It is a type of corn that is three to four
times quicker to harvest and uses less water than regular corn."

Farmers in the eastern Kenyan village of Ngoliba and across
the country are increasingly faced with water scarcity. Some 2.7
million people across half of Kenya's 47 counties have been
affected by drought, which the government recently declared a
national disaster.

A growing number of farmers in Kenya are switching to
growing baby corn – an immature ear that is harvested early and
typically eaten whole - as a way around unreliable rainfall.

While normal maize takes more than four months to mature,
often drying up during that period due to a lack of rain, baby
corn takes less than two months before it can be harvested,
explained Mwema.

"This means it requires less water, and when there is no
rain I just collect water from the nearby river," he said.

GROWING MARKET

Mwema said that thanks to the crop's short growth cycle, he
can harvest as much as 7 tonnes of baby corn in eight months, as
opposed to only one tonne of normal maize over that period.

But it is attractive prices that keep him growing the crop
on his farm.

One kilogramme fetches him 200 Kenyan shillings (about $2)
if sold to outlets like Nakumatt, a nationwide supermarket, and
100 shillings when sold to neighbours buying directly from his
farm.

That's much more than the 35 shillings he used to get from
local buyers for 1 kg of regular maize.

"Nothing from the crop is wasted," said Mwema, adding that
even the green stalks are sold to livestock farmers as fodder.

Martha Musyoka, a scientist at the International Centre of
Insect Physiology and Ecology, said baby corn is a promising
export due to high demand in Europe.

"Low in fat and high in potassium, it is a nutritious and
popular product," she said.

Muskoya estimates about 1,000 farmers in central and eastern
Kenya now grow baby corn - compared to only 100 a few years ago
– to meet rising demand.

The crop, however, requires regular checks to ensure it is
not attacked by pests, she said.

REGULATION

Joseph Muthengi is another keen grower of baby corn, which
he used to sell to buyers such as Kenya Fresh, a company selling
fresh produce for export to the EU market.

"The financial returns were such that a few years ago I was
planning to buy extra land to plant more baby corn," said
Muthengi.

His luck turned, however, when the EU introduced regulations
in 2013 requiring produce to meet certain conditions, with
farmers required to disclose the food's origin and the type of
chemicals used to grow it.

"Kenya Fresh started rejecting our products, saying they
didn't meet size or chemical standards," recalled Muthengi, who
now grows beans and tomatoes to supplement the revenue he gets
from baby corn.

"One time as many as 10 crates of produce were rejected, and
we had to sell them locally at less than half the price," he
said.

Su Kahumbu, the founder of Green Dreams, a Kenyan organic
farming company, said a majority of farmers avoid potential
complications by selling their produce locally.

"The local market is the closest one for fresh produce
farmers and has fewer risks," she explained.

(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi; editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie
Goering; please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking
and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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